Decolonising the Philippine language: The ebb and flow of Spanish influence on Filipino culture

By Erica Lopez

‘You don’t look Asian. In fact I thought you were Latina.’

‘Oh, your surname’s Lopez, so are you Spanish?’

‘Nice! You’re from the Philippines, so you’re basically Spanish, right, if you think about it?’

These are just some of the questions and general exclamations of disbelief and confusion that I have encountered on numerous occasions since moving to the UK from the Philippines at the age of eleven. I have heard so many different variations of these phrases that, when I started university, I was not the least surprised when many university peers also assumed I was at least partly Hispanic/Latina. In fact, every one of those false assumptions I used to take proudly as a compliment, because it meant that I looked more ‘Westernised’ than ‘Asian’. It was not until I was in my late teens that I realise such thoughts were not always reason for celebration but were the result of a deep-rooted colonial rule of Spain over the Philippines for almost 400 years. I soon realised that these expressions and assumptions were mostly innocent mistakes; after all, the Philippines’ colonial era – or any other country’s colonial history for that matter – was not exactly a top priority in English history textbooks. But it is time to start deconstructing those boundaries of comfort and question how much of our viewpoints and education derive from the colonial period. Therefore, in this blog post, I want to share with you the richness of pre-colonial Philippines and, among the many aspects of Spanish post-colonial influences in Philippine cultural heritage, my focus will specifically be on language.

A brief history of the Philippines

Contrary to popular belief, the Philippine archipelago was not founded by Spanish explorers. As early as AD 1000, Chinese, Arabic, and Indian traders were already trading widely with local communities on the islands; yet, it was Spanish colonisation, ‘an alien force’ (Constantino & Constantino), that disrupted the growth of indigenous cultures. In 1521, Spanish explorers encountered many uncharted territories during their expansion into the East, and Ferdinand Magellan eventually arrived on the island of Visayas. These Spanish colonisers gradually combined hundreds of islands into a single colony, culminating in the creation of Las Islas Filipinas, a large community of cultural areas with varying degrees of familiarity with one another.

Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who claimed this area in the mid-1500s for the future King Philip II of Spain, took possession of the islands and thus began 333 years of Spanish rule. Together with the imposition of Castilian colonial sovereignty came the transplantation of Spanish social, economic, and political institutions to the Philippine archipelago. The colonial powers compelled the native Filipinos to swear allegiance to the Spanish empire, where they had previously only had village chieftains recognised as ‘datus’; to worship a new God, where they had worshipped a pantheon of supernatural deities and divinities; to speak a new language, where they had  (and still have) a range of tongues and dialects; and to change their work patterns, abandoning their old mode of subsistence economy. Furthermore, the Filipino collective land ownership system was replaced by a Spanish landholding system focused on private ownership. As a result, when the Spanish rule ended in 1898, many previous aspects of the Filipino way of life were lost (Bauzon 1991). It is worth mentioning, however, that various social classes remained fiercely autonomous or indifferent to the coloniser; some appropriated and reinterpreted Spanish customs (Wendt 1998), while others laboured as slaves for the empire (Cortes et al. 2000).

This colonial era lasted until the 1898 Philippine Revolution, when the United States fought Spain during the Spanish–American War and took control of the Philippines. It was clear then that the islands had acquired a new colonial ruler, triggering the 1899–1902 Philippine–American War.

The Philippine language – past, present, and future

The pre-colonial baybayin and the Spanish abecedario

From the age of four, when I started learning how to read and write, I never questioned, nor did it ever cross my mind, why Filipinos did not have their own unique alphabet system like some Asian countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, etc. I simply thought it had always been that way.

Imagine my shock, then, when just two years ago I came across an Instagram post showing a Filipino artist reviving the country’s ancient language through art and discovered that we Filipinos did in fact have our own writing system, one that was eventually pushed out of the Filipino language by Spanish missionaries. I felt that a part of my Filipina identity was unlocked as I learnt that the history of the Philippines extends beyond the 300 years of Spanish colonisation often taught in history books. This revelation has since motivated me to read and discover more about it, as well as share and speak about it to more people.

That indigenous system of writing is called the baybayin. Borrowing from Hindu and Javanese sources, the baybayin is an alpha–syllabic script, meaning that some characters stand for either a single consonant or vowel, while other characters stand for an entire syllable.

The baybayin alphabets. Source: Artes de las Filipinas
The baybayin alphabets. Source: Artes de las Filipinas

Doctrina Christiana

The baybayin quickly went into decline and eventual extinction under Spanish colonisation. Converted Filipinos were taught Catholicism, the Latin alphabet, and the Spanish language by Spanish missionaries who acted as the islands’ first teachers. The first book ever written and printed in the Philippines, Doctrina Christiana (1593) (English: Christian Doctrine), is one example of this wherein the Latin alphabet was first used to explain the fundamental values of Christianity and Christian prayers in Spanish. The book was later translated into Tagalog (the majority language in the Philippines) in both the baybayin and Latin alphabets.

The Doctrina does not begin with prayers, but with a brief lesson in the Latin alphabet, a phonetic transcription, and its Tagalog baybayin counterparts. According to the Doctrina, the Latin alphabet is made up of the following letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, RR, S, T, U, V, X, Y, Z

As one may have guessed, the letter ‘RR’ represents what in Spanish phonology is called a trilled ‘r’ or hard ‘r’ in words such as ‘arroz’ and ‘perro’. Colonised Filipinos began to follow the Spanish alphabet from the 17th century, referring to it as the abecedario, and eventually expanding it to 32 letters, including the ‘LL’ as in ‘caballo’, CH as in ‘chico’, and NG representing the sound in words like ‘manga’, ‘venga’ and ‘vincular’.

Today, in the Chavacano language alphabet, a heavily Spanish-based Creole (mixed Spanish/Native) widely spoken in Zamboanga City in Mindanao and in some parts of Cavite City in Luzon, the abecedario letters CH, LL, and RR are still used.

Filipinos were introduced to the English language and its 26-letter alphabet at the end of Spanish rule and the arrival of American-style public education during the American era. Today, English is more widely taught in schools than Spanish. Despite this, the abecedario remained in use as many phrases still used Spanish letters. Eventually, the letters of the abecedario were modified into the official Philippine alphabet now known as abakada:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, Ñ, Ng, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z

The present day

I never realised how many of the words in the native language I speak every day were derived from another language until I started studying Spanish in school. As Marlon James Sales, a Philippine-born translator and linguist at the University of Michigan, described it perfectly during an ABC interview: ‘Most Filipinos don’t realise they’re speaking Spanish’. Indeed, although the Spanish rule had long ended and English became the second most dominant language in the Philippines since Spanish was removed as a co-official language in 1987, linguistically the Spanish language remains influential. Despite the fact that only about 0.5 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people speak Spanish, the country still has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in Asia. Linguistically, approximately 4,000 words, or about one-third of vocabulary in Tagalog, are derived from Spanish words, including words and phrases like:

  • kumusta’ (‘How are you’, from Spanish ‘cómo está’),
  • puwede’ (‘can/could’, from ‘puede’),
  • bintana’ (‘window’, from ‘ventana’),
  • syudad’ (‘city’, from ‘ciudad’),
  • trabaho’ (noun for ‘work’, from ‘trabajo’),
  • alas kwatro’ (‘at four o’clock’, from ‘a las cuatro’).
Source: Alba Luna’s blog

At the same time, there are some ‘false friends’ (see figure), where the meaning in Tagalog is different from other Romance languages. Some other Philippine languages report a stronger Spanish influence, with the Visayan language having around 6,000 words coming from Spanish.

In recent years there have been campaigns to bring the baybayin letters back to Philippine culture. This includes modifications to modernise the letters to suit the many Philippine languages/dialects, such as introducing ‘D’ and ‘R’ sounds that were not in the traditional version:

On 23 April 2018, the Filipino House committee on basic education and culture approved a bill to make baybayin the national writing system and require baybayin translations for the following:

  • signage for streets
  • public facilities, buildings
  • hospitals
  • fire and police stations
  • community centers and government halls
  • labels of locally produced food products
  • mastheads of newspapers and other print publications

Filipinos have been expressing their opinions through social media debates, blog posts and news articles on this seemingly drastic national change.

My view is that the baybayin should not be used as a primary writing system just yet, but should eventually be rolled out in gradual changes. First, the Government should prioritise teaching it to educators as it would be difficult to pass on to future generations if teachers themselves lack proficiency. The next step is then to broaden it in the curriculum and teach it from as early as kindergarten, so that Filipino children can acquire it organically as a first language. Notably, other Filipino dialects like Kulintan, Tagbanwa, and others, also have their own scripts, which should be taught in the schools of their respective provinces.

Those opposed to the changes believe that it is a waste of time or simply impractical. As one commentator put it, ‘Filipinos are supposed to move forward with the communication systems, I just think this is a mile step back’. However, in light of the fact that the official Filipino language was removed from the core college curriculum in 2019, learning the baybayin provides a key opportunity for us to reestablish a link to the rich pre-colonial traditions and cultures of the Philippines and helps strengthen a proud Filipino identity. Above all, it reminds us that the Philippines is not a pale imitation of Spain nor of the United States. Just as globalisation pulls everyone closer than ever, allowing us to embrace ideas from other countries, it is equally important for former colonies to understand their roots in local or pre-colonial customs and homegrown traditions.

Final thoughts

Moving forward, as part of the decolonising initiative, I would love to see further advances in how Spain’s colonial legacy with its former colonies in all parts of the world – especially in the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia during its quest for empire – is being taught and implemented in schools and universities in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. I for one was shocked to find out from a Spanish classmate last year that this vital portion of Spain’s history is either being glorified or passively taught and researched in their school and university curricula. I believe in educating the current and future generations in their country’s colonial history, as this will allow them to gain a more critical understanding of their country’s past and, in a way, accountability and responsibility. It also goes without saying that Spain’s colonial legacy should also be taught in Spanish language modules in universities and schools across the UK.

It is clear that while Spanish colonisation catapulted the Filipino people, for better or worse, into the world of Spanish culture and civilisation, the Filipinos had also demonstrated their capacity to blend the country’s rich indigenous lifestyle with incoming Spanish influence, producing the beauty that is the Philippines today. I am not Hispanic, nor am I Latina; I am a Filipina. It is time to rethink and reevaluate what we know about our own histories and cultures and about one another. When we delve deeper into what we have been accustomed to, looking beyond the colonial point of view, we start to see the world we live in through multiple perspectives, multiple histories, and multiple cultures, and this is what ‘decolonising’ means for me.

‘Maraming Salamat.’ [Thank you.]


Bauzon, Leslie E. (1991) Influence of the Spanish culture. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 March 2021]

Constantino, Renato and Letizia R. Constantino. (2008) The first ‘liberation’. In: A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War. New York: NYU Press, pp. 10–23.

Cortes, Rosario M., Celestina P. Boncan and Ricardo T. Jose. (2000) The Filipino Saga: History as Social Change. Quezon City: New Day Publisher.

Wendt, Reinhard. (1998) Philippine fiesta and colonial culture. Philippine Studies 46 (1), pp. 3–23.

[Erica Lopez is currently a second-year student studying Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Translation, and Interpreting at Newcastle University. She has always been passionate about cultural representation and diversity, and is thrilled to be writing her first blog post on a topic that is very near and dear to her.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.